In his latest piece for The New Yorker, Peter Hessler writes about learning to speak Arabic as an adult, when his family moved to Cairo, Egypt, in October of 2011. “It was the first fall after the Arab Spring, and Arabic lessons were a way to absorb language, culture, and politics”, Hessler writes in “Talk Like an Egyptian”, “on many days, I went to Tahrir Square, to report on the ongoing revolution.” He learned words like “embassy,” “Israel,” “spy,” “tear gas,” “slaughter,” and “conspiracy theory”, vocabulary lists that reflected both the country’s shifting politics and its enduring difficulties.
“Sometimes I wondered about the strangeness of Tahrir-speak, and what my Arabic would have been like if I had arrived ten years earlier,” he writes. “But it would have been different at any time, in any place: you can never step into the same language twice. Even eternal phrases took on a new texture in the light of the revolution.”
According to Hessler, when complex ideas pass through so many lenses of language, distortions are inevitable. Eventually, Western scholars rediscovered the original classics in Byzantium, learned Greek, and claimed that many translations were flawed.
On the Arabic and Egyptian culture’s interaction with the outside world and its exposure to other cultures, Hessler writes that Arabic imported “shah” from the Persians, and then the phrase al-shah mat—the king died—was introduced to English as “checkmate.” One morning in class, Rifaat Amin, his teacher, taught the word for “mud brick.” In ancient hieroglyphs it was djebet, which became tobe in Coptic, and then the Arabs, adding a definite article, made it al-tuba, which was brought to Spain as adobar, and then to the American Southwest, where this heavy thing, having been lugged across four millennia and seven thousand miles, finally landed as “adobe.” You can read Hessler’s piece in its entirety here.
*** with Permission from The New Yorker magazine.